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Wednesday, November 4, 2009
A Beautiful Interview with Amy Reed
Last month an amazing book burst onto the shelves, inspiring reviewers to use adjectives such as "raw," "stark," "gritty," "disquieting," "riveting," "powerful," and "intense." And it is all of those things (plus a few more thrown in), make no mistake. But it is also smartly crafted and keenly written, which makes it even more unusual and entrancing. 

I decided to try to get to know the brain behind the book, and asked Amy Reed some really hard questions about her really hard (but really worthwhile) novel, Beautiful. Here's what she had to say . . .  

1.  I think the thing I like very most about Beautiful is how incredibly well-written it is. How did you do that? Did getting an MFA really help? Or is this a natural talent?

Thank you so much!  I’ve wanted to be a storyteller since I was very young, but I can assure you I wasn’t just born with it.  I have an old thick binder full of embarrassingly bad poetry to prove that.  What I think does come naturally to me is an obsessive curiosity about what motivates people to do the things they do, which definitely helps my writing.  Going to school for writing taught me craft for sure, and it’s also where I was able to focus on finding my own unique voice.

2.  Alex, as The Great Corrupter, is probably the most interesting character in the book for me, because she’s so incredibly tough and mean, but there’s also this deep vulnerability to her that you articulate just right. Can you just . . . talk about her some more—your feelings about her, more about her as a person? 

It was really important to me that Alex not be a purely “evil” character, because I don’t believe people are ever that black and white.  It’s important for me to always have compassion for my characters, and with Alex, I’ll admit it was a little difficult.  But coming from the home that she did, how could anyone expect her to be well adjusted?  I could psychoanalyze her forever, but basically I think she’s looking for the same thing everyone is—Cassie, Sarah, Ethan, Cassie’s parents—she’s looking for someone to love her, only her perception of what it means and how to get it are terribly twisted. 

3. One thing that makes me deeply uncomfortable reading Beautiful is how unaware Cassie’s parents are about what’s happening, and how unavailable they are to her. Not that you’re an expert on family dynamics, but any thoughts on how this happens in families? How it happened in this family?

Unfortunately, I think this kind of dysfunction happens way too easily in families.  We can sometimes forget that parents are humans too, with their own problems and their own needs, and sometimes they can be blinded by them, even at the expense of their child’s wellbeing.  Even good people—and I believe Cassie’s parents are good people—can get their priorities wrong.  They can convince themselves that their kids can take care of themselves. Denial can be a very powerful survival technique, and in the case of Cassie’s family it was tragically misused. 

4.  There is some super-grim stuff in Beautiful. Care to share with us any grim moments out of your own life, or grim things you managed to avoid?

I’d like to be able to tell you that everything in Beautiful is purely fictional, but that is unfortunately not the case.  I had a pretty rough time in middle school.  Like Cassie, I changed schools a lot.  I was shy and always felt like an outcast.  I did a lot of things I knew were wrong just because I thought it would help me fit in, and the repercussions of those choices caused me a lot of pain.  But I was lucky that I had a kind of self-preservation instinct that kept me from going too far.  I was always able to pull myself back when I got too close to the edge.  Somewhere deep inside, I had a concept of self-worth that guided me away from total self-destruction. 

5.  All the boys in Beautiful are disgusting, both physically and emotionally. Any reason for this? That there’s no handsome, smart, sweet, chess-playing hero in here?

Unfortunately, that just wasn’t Cassie’s world.  Maybe she would have met those boys if she had decided to stay at the lunch table with the nice girls at the beginning.  But she got sucked into Alex’s world completely, and the nice boys did not hang around there.   That being said, if my girls need saving, I think I’ll let them do it themselves, or they’ll help each other.  The idea of writing a male “hero” into a book about a female character kind of worries me.  She can fall in love, sure.  But as far as being “saved,” she doesn’t need a boy for that.  

6. There’s some interesting play with life being a movie in Cassie’s narration. Does this have to do with just how Cassie sees things (or teenagers see things), or did your stint in film school come sneaking in, too?

It could partly be my stint in film school.  I see stories very visually.  But I also think it speaks to Cassie’s dissociation from what’s going on in her life.  She’s shut herself off emotionally in order to survive, and because of that disconnection it’s like she’s watching a move of her own life rather that experiencing it personally.  She also has an intense need to be seen, to have her suffering acknowledged, and perhaps the only way she can conceive of her life being important enough for this is if it’s on screen.  Reality has been so skewed by the media that I suspect a lot of teens picture their own lives in these terms.

7. While Beautiful is its own lovely, intense, distinct thing, it also reminded me a lot of Go Ask Alice, and some of Ellen Hopkins’ books. Are there any books or writers that inspired and influenced you in writing this?

I’m honored to be compared to Go Ask Alice, which was one of my favorite books growing up, and definitely an inspiration. And Ellen Hopkins, well she’s just the queen of edgy YA, although I didn’t actually read any of her books until after I finished Beautiful.  To be honest, most of my influences are probably classified as adult rather than YA, even though they feature teen characters—Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison; The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold; Girl, Interrupted by Suzanna Kaysen; Sarah by J.T. LeRoy/ Laura Albert; and Push by Sapphire.

8.  Beautiful is the kind of book I would have devoured when I was fourteen, but there’s no way in the world I would’ve let my mom see me reading it, nor would I have discussed it with her. Is there any tension in you about that—the fact that this is really mature material that kids may process, like Cassie, without any adult help?

I’d really love for kids to feel comfortable talking to their parents about the topics raised in Beautiful.  In a perfect world, parents and teens would have this kind of open communication.  But I understand this is not going to happen for many of the people who read this book. I also understand that Beautiful contains a lot of heavy material which may make some readers (and parents) uncomfortable.  But I also think teens deserve some credit.  I think they deserve to be told the truth.  I believe in their ability to see Cassie’s story for what it is, to feel compassion for her, to learn something from her mistakes and hopefully avoid making the same ones themselves.  I also hope that if teens don’t feel comfortable talking with their own parents, that there is another adult in their lives they can turn to—a teacher, school counselor, priest, coach, aunt or uncle—somebody they can trust and count on for guidance. 

9.  I think place is really important to a story, and Beautiful takes place in the Pacific northwest. How do you think Cassie’s tale might be different if she’d lived in, say, New York City, or Montgomery, Alabama?

I don’t know about New York or Montgomery, but I think the Seattle area definitely had a huge part in creating the mood in Beautiful.  A friend described the feeling of the book as “gray, dense and damp,” and I think that’s a perfect description.  The fact that it takes place in a suburb is also important.  Suburbs are large and sprawling, which basically means there’s a lot of room to get in trouble.  People who live in suburbs are often under the false impression that they’re safe, that their kids don’t have the same pressures they’d have if they were raised in the big bad city.  In my experience, this couldn’t be any further from the truth.  There are bad things going on, but nobody will talk about it—which is far more dangerous than if everything was out in the open.

10.  To end on a bit of a lighter note—you used to live in San Francisco (and now are just across the bay), and I did too. I think that is about the most perfect city in the world. What are some of your favorite San Francisco moments?

I’ve lived in the Bay Area for almost ten years, so I have too many favorite memories to count.  I love the diversity of San Francisco, how the neighborhoods change between blocks.  I also love how it’s a walking city.  It makes people more aware of each other than if they just drove from parking lot to parking lot.  I also love how Gay Pride is a holiday for everyone here.  The whole city celebrates, gay and straight and everything in-between.  I’ve lived in Oakland for the past few years, so I have to say that I am a little biased towards the East Bay these days.  Oakland in particular gets a bad rap.  There’s a very vibrant indie arts scene—musicians, artists, writers, etc.—and a growing urban farming movement.  Oakland has all the cool stuff you associate with San Francisco, and probably more.  It’s just a little grungier, which is exactly how I like it.  

Thanks so much, Amy, for taking the time to answer these with so much thoughtfulness!